The English-speaking world has long considered 1740, the year in which Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded was published, pivotal in the development of the novel, a broad term that, for several centuries, has been applied to many different forms of long fiction. Richardson’s first novel remains a convenient landmark in the history of the form because, at least in England, it went further than any previous work in exploring an individual character’s “sensibility,” that wonderful mix of perception, culture, logic, sentiment, passion, and myriad other traits that define a person’s individuality. Pamela has been called the first intellectual novel, that subgenre in which most of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries worked.
Nevertheless, while 1740 is an important date in the development of one type of novel, to see all earlier novels as primitive ancestors of Pamela would distort the history of this multifarious form. The novel followed substantially different lines of development in Spain, France, and England, three countries notable for their contributions to the early growth of this form in Europe. Moreover, different types of novels exist side by side in every period, each type appealing to a different taste, much as different types of the novel flourish today. Finally, certain earlier works have exerted as profound and lasting an influence on the novel in Europe as that attributed to Pamela.
The massive, one-thousand-page Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933) appeared in Japan hundreds of years before the genre developed in the West. The Tale of Genji was an immediate success in Japan, and celebrations in the year 2008 marked the one thousandth year since the first recorded mention of the novel appeared in 1008. The author, Murasaki Shikibu, was a lady-in-waiting to the empress, and the story describes courtly, not common, life. Because there was virtually no contact between Japan and Europe at the time, this first great novel in the history of world literature came to have little influence on the Western novel. Unlike in Japan, the woman novelist would not emerge in the West for another seven hundred years; women’s contributions to the Western novel emerged alongside those of men, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.